A survey of 2,000 contract researchers has called for a "change of culture" to recognise that these staff are not largely transitory, employed for a short time before progressing to other careers, writes Olga Wojtas.
Warwick University's Institute for Employment Research carried out a three-year investigation into academic-research careers in Scotland on behalf of the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council.
The report says it is a myth that academic research provides a "seedbed" for researchers to develop skills before moving on. More than half the contract researchers surveyed wanted a long-term career in higher education. Only a fifth wanted to go into industrial research or professional practice.
The Warwick team, led by Chris Hasluck, found that many staff had worked in contract research for long periods, but most had a series of short-term contracts and extensions. More than one in five had at least five contract changes within two years. Mr Hasluck said this seemed to have consequences that permeated the whole academic research sector.
Contract researchers felt disadvantaged and insecure, and managers and human-resource specialists felt short and fixed-term contracts increased the burden of project management and staff administration. Morale and productivity suffered as a result.
"At any moment, between 40 and 50 per cent of contract research staff were actively seeking their next post," the report says. "This represents a huge distraction from current work."
It suggests that universities may insist on fixed-term contracts when they are not necessary.
Former contract researchers said the most important benefits of their new careers were job security and improved prospects. Although pay was usually higher, they did not find that as important.